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K-12 schools in New Jersey will soon incorporate climate education into curricula

New Jersey will soon be incorporating climate change education into public schools' curricula for K-12 students, according to a press release. – Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

New Jersey will be the first state in the country to incorporate climate education into public school curriculum in K-12 schools this academic year, according to a press release.

The objective of this curriculum is to educate students on why climate change occurs, the impact it has and how to make informed, sustainable decisions, according to the release. It will be implemented in various subjects such as sciences, world languages, arts and social studies.

Carrie Ferraro, an affiliate of the Rutgers Climate Institute, said that the program is based on the concept of interaction between academic subjects. 

She said that helping students understand the interaction between knowledge from different fields will ultimately help them make better decisions, find solutions and work toward a better future.

“I think that it will allow students to have a better understanding of climate change and its impacts and solutions … by giving them a more systems-wide understanding of climate change, looking at it from not only the scientific lens but also through policy and social studies and art and communication,” Ferraro said

She said that the emotional aspects of climate change can affect the age levels at which such content may be appropriate.

She said that for the longest time, climate change educators did not cover major climate change issues until fifth grade, instead focusing on weather and its changes. As cognitive understanding develops, the coverage of climate change shifts to its impacts, she said.

At the high school level, focus shifts to thinking of high-level solutions and ways to reduce or adapt to the impacts of climate change, Ferraro said.

She said that while such education is mandated, it is not tested and reporting compliance is not enforced and could just be ticking off a checkbox.

She said that many teachers teach the content that will enable students to do well on exams because teachers and their districts are evaluated on scores. As such, including climate change on standardized exams could give teachers an incentive to include these topics in their curriculums.

“There's always some bias in the tests, and some students don't test well, but they might be able to show their knowledge in other ways,” Ferraro said. “So (standardized tests are) really not the best method for assessment, but it's what we have so far.”

In learning about climate change, students can face eco-anxiety, or climate change-related anxiety, which she has been working with her colleagues in the Rutgers School of Social Work and the New Jersey Climate Change Resource Center (NJCCRC) to address, particularly by always discussing ways to reduce or adapt to the effects of climate change.

“The number one way ... is just helping them think through solutions,” Ferraro said. “So providing hope that there's things that we're already doing in this world to make ourselves more resilient to climate change and reduce the impacts of climate change.”

She said that spending time in nature and empowering individuals to take action in their local communities have shown to be powerful tools to help cope with eco-anxiety.

Ferraro said that the NJCCRC has been providing teachers with resources to help them incorporate climate education into their respective subject areas, even if they do not teach science.

“(Climate change) wouldn't be an extra topic that they have to teach but more of an example of how what they're already teaching works,” she said.

In some cases, feelings of apprehension and overload can keep teachers from addressing climate change, especially those in non-science fields, Ferraro said. For some science teachers, the existing curriculum seems overwhelming, while non-science teachers may feel as though they lack enough understanding of climate change to teach it in their own classes.

In other cases, she said politics prevent climate change from reaching classrooms and sometimes even discussions.

Ferraro said that when she speaks with educators from other states, a lot of them consider New Jersey residents to be lucky to have standards for climate change education. She said that she hopes the state can be a model for other states in the future.

“As the first ones, there's going to be a lot of trial and error,” Ferraro said. “But I think that ultimately, our students will be ahead of the game hopefully, and then also, we can assist other places in figuring out how to make this work.”

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